Local author Douglas Quinn pulled out out an old set of baseball cards years back that sparked the idea for his new historical novel.
One card had the picture of first baseman Buck Leonard from Rocky Mount. Leonard played Negro League Baseball at the height of its popularity in the 1920s to 1950s. He was called “the black Babe Ruth” by some, but Leonard was mostly ignored by the racially divided major league at the time.
Quinn, 75, was a “baseball fanatic” growing up when he collected the card. He even invented his own board game, using the names of his favorite players and keeping made-up box scores for them.
Quinn’s hero was Theodore “Ted” Samuel Williams, a left fielder for the Boston Red Sox, when baseball was the national obsession. Quinn said every time he had the chance to see Williams play, the batting legend hit a home run.
The set of baseball cards that Quinn rediscovered had been promoted by Williams, a white player who championed Negro League Baseball players disregarded by the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Quinn said the bios on the back of the cards were interesting, so he began research for his soon-to-be released novel “The Cornfield Boys.” Leonard, who played for the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Homestead Grays, became the model for Quinn’s character Ray Ostler in “The Cornfield Boys.”
Like in his childhood, Quinn created box scores for Ostler when he wrote the 587-page book.
To introduce readers to “The Cornfield Boys,” Quinn is planning a book talk and reading at Arts of the Albemarle on Jan. 20 from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The book is “probably the most interesting book I have written,” said Quinn, who has written 35 books. To get the word out, he is posting notices on Instagram and Facebook and has contacted African-American churches in the area. Many people do not know about the history of the under-rated Negro Leagues, he said.
“I hope when I talk to people about this book, it will encourage more people to read more about the players,” said Quinn, pen name for Stan Colson of Weeksville.
“The Cornfield Boys” is set in Sawyertown (which closely resembles Elizabeth City) and Norfolk Va., when baseball and Negro League “blackball” were at the height of popularity. The story follows Ostler as he joins his A.M.E. Zion Church team and gets a break with The Downtown Skippers of Norfolk. The poorly funded barnstorming team travels to destinations on its schedule and to pick-up games not on its schedule. At times, their job involves clearing cornfields so that they have a place to play. Teammates have to pay for rooms and food out of meager earnings, but Ostler and the others stay because they love the game. Ostler gets his break when invited to join a professional level team funded by Malcolm Fullard, a business man with roots in bootlegging and gambling.
Each chapter in the book is introduced by a quote, newspaper article, church flier, letter from home, telegram — all written in the style of the time.
The cover, painted by Quinn’s wife Donna Higgins-Colson, partly resembles an old, black and white photo of Buck Leonard and Willie Mays. She also created a pen-and-ink drawing of Ostler, along with his fictional year of birth and death.
Quinn said he drew from history of Negro League Baseball in northeastern North Carolina and the South to create dialogue and characters that add color to the stats. One helpful source was a book, no longer in print, that Quinn found at the East Carolina University library. “They Called Us Cornfield Boys” was written by Raymond Whitefield, a former Cornfield player from Hertford County.
Quinn said the Negro League players had the talent but not the opportunity to play in the major leagues until Jackie Robinson broke the barrier. After that happened, black fans began following favorite players in the major leagues and interest in the Negro Leagues declined. By 1950, most of the teams disbanded.
Quinn said he knows of only one other work of fiction that centers on the Negro Leagues. He’s hoping more writers will delve further into the untold stories of that era.
Quinn said writing fiction gave him liberty to create dialogue and develop the personalities of players in a way that facts and statistics alone cannot do.
“It’s the dialogue that drives stories, and it’s the characters that make the stories,” he said.
One of his more colorful characters is Malcolm Fullard, the owner of a Negro League team, with ties to illegal gambling and money-laundering nightclubs. Quinn said he modeled him after real life Gus Greenlee, known for his criminal activities, interest in baseball and generosity to African-American neighborhoods. Quinn said he touches on the criminal aspects of the baseball industry, but his story mostly focuses on a hard-working player who loves the game.
“The Cornfield Boys,” self-published by White Heron Press, is scheduled for release on Jan. 5 and will be available on Amazon and at Arts of the Albemarle. Cost is $19.95.